The Ultimate Guide to Latin Relative Pronouns
Relative pronouns are an important part of Latin. But they can also be confusing, mostly because there are so many different forms and many of them look alike.
Latin students and teachers often refer to these pronouns as “Q-words,” since all the forms begin with the letter Q. In this post, my goal is to make these little Q-words easier to understand and use.
First we will cover what relative pronouns are and important terminology associated with them. Then we will dive into the declension chart and look at lots of example sentences!
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What are relative pronouns?
A relative pronoun is a pronoun that allows you to give more information about a person, place, or thing. The relative pronouns in English are who, which, and that.
Think about the following sentence.
The man who sits in the garden sings.
Vir quī in hortō sedet cantat.
The relative pronoun who (Latin quī) introduces a clause that gives us more information about the man. We aren’t talking about just any man: it is specifically the man who sits in the garden.
Relative pronouns specify which person, place, or thing is meant. Thus they perform an important function in both Latin and English.
The very name “relative” conveys this idea. Relative comes from Latin relātīvus, which derives from the Latin verb referō. This verb has many meanings, but one of them is “report” or “relate.”
So you can think of relative pronouns as pronouns that relate more information about a noun.
What are relative clauses?
Before we take a closer look at the Latin relative pronoun, we need to clarify some more terminology. Every relative pronoun introduces a relative clause.
Let’s return to our example sentence. This time, the whole relative clause is in bold.
The man who sits in the garden sings.
Vir quī in hortō sedet cantat.
A relative clause has, at minimum, its own subject and verb. There may also be a direct object, indirect object, prepositional phrase, etc. In our example sentence, who (quī) is the subject, sits (sedet) is the verb, and in the garden (in hortō) is a prepositional phrase.
Note that a relative clause is a subordinate clause. This means that it cannot stand on its own. It needs to be part of a larger sentence.
The relative pronoun is what connects the relative clause to the rest of the sentence. Each relative pronoun has an antecedent, that is, a specific word that it refers to.
In our example sentence, the antecedent is man (vir). The relative clause is giving us information about the man.
You can recognize a relative clause because – no matter what – there will always be a relative pronoun. If there is no relative pronoun, then there is no relative clause.
This is because in Latin, you can never omit the relative. In English, we can say “The woman I see is singing” instead of “The woman that I see is singing.” In Latin, the relative pronoun is mandatory.
Latin Relative Pronoun Chart
As I mentioned up above, the English relative pronouns are who, which, and that. Each of these pronouns is used in slightly different contexts; for instance, which can only refer to a non-person.
In Latin, on the other hand, there is one primary relative pronoun: quī, quae, quod. It can mean “who,” “which,” or “that,” depending on the context.
Latin nouns and pronouns all have gender, number, and case, and the relative pronoun is no exception. Quī is the masculine singular nominative form, quae is the feminine singular nominative form, and quod is the neuter singular nominative form.
Now let’s look at the full declension.
NOTE: When you use a relative pronoun with the preposition cum, the preposition is added to the end. This gives us quōcum, quācum, and quibuscum.
How do relative pronouns work in Latin?
There is one rule that you should always remember when it comes to Latin relative pronouns. A relative pronoun takes its gender and number from its antecedent, but it takes its case from its use in its relative clause.
This can be complicated to grasp at first, but don’t worry: we will look at multiple examples.
Gender & Number
Remember that every Latin noun has a gender. Since relative pronouns also have gender, it makes sense that the pronoun’s gender would need to match the noun’s gender.
Consider the following two sentences.
Vir quī in hortō sedet cantat. = The man who is in the garden sings.
Fēmina quae in hortō sedet cantat. = The woman who is in the garden sings.
In English, we use the same relative pronoun (who) in both instances, but in Latin there is a distinction in gender. Quī refers to vir, which is masculine, so quī must also be masculine. Quae, on the other hand, refers to the feminine noun fēmina, so quae needs to be feminine.
Similarly, Latin nouns can be singular or plural. Logically, you must use a singular pronoun to refer to a singular noun, but a plural pronoun to refer to a plural noun.
So far so good. But what about the relative pronoun’s case?
It is tempting to say that the relative pronoun’s case should also match the antecedent’s case. But this is not true.
Think about it. A relative pronoun introduces its own relative clause. Every clause has its own grammatical structure, so the pronoun’s case depends on its role in its own clause.
If the pronoun is the subject of its clause, then it will be in the nominative. If it is the direct object, then it will be in the accusative, and so on. The case of its antecedent is irrelevant.
Think about the following sentence.
Fēmina quam puer videt cantat.
The woman whom the boy sees is singing.
Quam is an accusative singular feminine relative pronoun that refers to fēmina. It is singular and feminine because fēmina is singular and feminine.
Fēmina is in the nominative because it is the subject of the main clause: fēmina cantat, “the woman sings.” But quam is in the accusative because it is the direct object of the relative clause (quam puer videt).
We can see this more clearly if we rephrase the relative clause as an independent sentence. Whom does the boy see? The boy sees the woman. Puer fēminam videt.
“Woman” is clearly the direct object here, and this is why fēminam is accusative. So when we replace fēminam with quam to create a relative clause, quam is also the direct object.
Examples of Latin Relative Pronouns
Now it is time to look at examples of relative pronouns in each case. I stressed up above that the relative pronoun cannot be omitted.
You will notice, on the other hand, that sometimes the antecedent is implied.
Quī on its own can mean “the one who / the man who”, while quae is “the one who / the woman who.” Similarly, quod is “the thing which”, while quae (neuter plural) is “the things which,” and so forth.
Puellam quae in silvīs habitat nōn videō. = I do not see the girl who lives in the woods.
Quī fortis est veniet. = (He) who / whoever is brave will come. (implied antecedent is)
Titus, cuius soror est uxor mea, amīcus est. = Titus, whose sister is my wife, is a friend.
Hominēs quōrum nōmina in librō scrīpta sunt nōn sunt laetī. = The people whose names were written in the book are not happy.
Agricola cui pecūniam dedimus nōbīs grātiās ēgit. = The farmer to whom we gave money thanked us.
Virī quibus sunt multī amīcī nōn timent. = Men who have many friends (for whom there are many friends) are not afraid. (dative of possession)
Librum quem mihi mīsistī iam legō. = I am already reading the book which you sent me.
Quae facis nōn mihi placent. = I do not like (the things) which you are doing. (implied antecedent ea)
Puella quācum ambulāmus cantat. = The girl with whom we are walking is singing.
Caesar mīlitēs laudāvit ā quibus urbs capta erat. = Caesar praised the soldiers by whom the city had been captured.
Other Types of Relative Clauses in Latin
So far I have explained the basic use of the relative pronoun: to introduce a relative clause with a verb in the indicative mood. But there are also other grammatical structures that involve the relative pronoun.
In this section of the post, I will briefly outline some of these uses. A word of caution: if you haven’t learned the subjunctive yet, then this section is too advanced for you. I recommend that you skip to my tips for memorizing the relative pronoun.
Relative Clause of Characteristic
Relative clauses of characteristic describe what sort of person, place, or thing you are referring to. They tell us what is (or might be) characteristic of a given noun.
The verb in a relative clause of characteristic is always in the subjunctive mood. This is because the focus is on the noun’s character or potential.
The easiest way to distinguish between a relative clause of characteristic and a regular relative clause is to give an example.
Titus est quī vēritātem dīxit. = Titus is the one who told the truth. (REGULAR)
Titus est quī vēritātem dīcat. = Titus is the sort of person who tells the truth. (CHARACTERISTIC)
The first sentence contains a regular relative clause. This clause tells us a fact about a specific instance in Titus’ life: he told the truth. For this reason, the verb dīxit is in the indicative.
The second sentence, on the other hand, relays a general characteristic of Titus: his truthfulness. We can assume that Titus is the kind of person who would tell the truth no matter the circumstances. This is a relative clause of characteristic, and the verb dīcat is in the subjunctive.
In relative clauses of characteristic, the relative pronouns often have an indefinite or a general antecedent. The following phrases frequently introduce relative clauses of characteristic:
- sunt quī . . . = there are some who . . .
- quis est quī . . . ? = who is there who . . .?
- nēmō est quī . . . = there is no one who . . .
Here are two more example sentences.
Quis est quī rēgem nōn timeat? = Who is there who does not fear the king? (i.e. Who is there of the sort so as to not fear the king?)
Sunt quī putent avēs esse deōs. = There are some who think that birds are gods.
If you would like to read more about relative clauses of characteristic, then I recommend consulting §535 of Allen and Greenough’s, my favorite Latin grammar.
Relative Clause of Purpose
A relative clause of purpose is just what it sounds like: a purpose clause introduced by a relative pronoun. The relative pronoun must refer to an antecedent in the main clause.
Compare the following two sentences. The first is a standard purpose clause introduced by ut, and the second is a relative clause of purpose introduced by quī.
Rēx poētam vocat ut fābulam nārret.
Rēx poētam vocat quī fābulam nārret.
Both Latin versions have the same English translation: “The king summons the poet to tell a story / in order that he may tell a story.”
The difference is purely grammatical. In the second sentence, quī stands for ut is (“in order that he”). If the poet were female, we would use quae to stand for ut ea (“in order that she”).
You will see the relative clause of purpose everywhere. You can recognize it because the relative clause emphasizes the goal or purpose of the main action.
The last special use of the relative pronoun that I want to discuss is the connective relative. This use, unlike the last two, does not have to involve the subjunctive.
The connective relative is used to connect two separate sentences. It stands in for et (and) plus a third person pronoun. This sounds complicated in the abstract, but a few examples will clear things up.
Pater mihi multa dōna mīsit. Quae cum vīdissem, laetāta sum.
My father sent me many gifts. And when I had seen them, I rejoiced.
In this example, quae is a neuter plural relative pronoun referring to dōna “gifts.” It is equivalent to et . . . ea “and . . . them”. The relative pronoun is used to link the sentences more closely together.
It would also be fine to write: Pater mihi multa dōna mīsit. Et cum ea vīdissem, laetāta sum. The two versions have the same meaning.
Romans love to use the connective relative, so you will encounter it constantly once you begin to read ancient texts. Here is a rather complex example from Livy. Quorum refers back to equitum (cavalry).
tum consul Romanus, ut rem excitaret, equitum paucas turmas extra ordinem immisit; quorum cum plerique delapsi ex equis essent et alii turbati, et a Samnitium acie ad opprimendos eos qui ceciderant et ad suos tuendos ab Romanis procursum est.
Then the Roman consul, to put some life into the work, detached a few troops of cavalry and sent them in. Of these the most part were unhorsed, and, the rest being thrown into confusion, there was a rush on the part of the Samnites to dispatch the fallen and on that of the Romans to save their comrades.Livy History of Rome 10.36.4 (trans. Foster)
Tips for Memorizing Latin Relative Pronouns
The Latin relative pronoun features an odd mixture of first, second, and third declension noun endings. In the genitive and dative singular, they follow the pronominal pattern of –ius and –ī in all three genders.
My first recommendation is that you look at the forms carefully and notice familiar patterns. For instance, quam, quā, quārum, and quās in the feminine declension display standard first declension noun endings.
My second recommendation is that you repeat the forms out loud to yourself constantly. You can even make up a song to help the endings to stick in your memory.
Check out the following two videos about Latin relative pronouns by HI PAWS, a Latin teacher (with a cat) who makes weird but effective musical videos about Latin grammar.
To sum up: a relative pronoun introduces a relative clause with more information about a specific noun or pronoun (its antecedent). In Latin, the relative pronoun takes its gender and number from its antecedent, but its case from its own clause.
This is a long and dense post, so if you don’t understand everything right now, that’s okay. The point is to pay close attention to relative pronouns and to return to them over and over until one day, they make sense.
Are you struggling with Latin pronouns in general? Then you may also like the following posts:
Personal Pronouns (Ego, tū, etc.)
Reflexive Pronouns (Suī and more)
Interrogative Pronouns (Quis, quid)
Clear and concise – love your style. Your topics are great for coming back to basics and the value of mastering them.
11 of us are in a great Latin class at our OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at Furman University. The class is currently translating and discussing Pliny’s and Trajan’s letters. Young Pliny is a master at confusing modern readers with bizarre word order and complex grammar.
Your emails anchor my grammar foundations before I take on Young Pliny.
Hi Ron, I am glad to hear that my posts are helping you out with Pliny. Your class sounds like a lot of fun! I read Pliny’s letter on the eruption of Vesuvius with my Latin students a few years ago and we enjoyed it immensely 🙂
I LOVE the way you explain things and am so grateful. I was really confused by this sentence in Familia Romana: “Pueri saccos plenos QUI a servis portantur vident et interrogant” and you cleared it up for me. Thanks!
Hi Meggan, I’m glad my post helped you out with this sentence. Understanding which case of the relative pronoun is used – and why – is tricky at first, but it sounds like you are making good progress!